Reward offered in chickpea blaze

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WALLA WALLA -- Arson is the most likely cause of a fire earlier this month that damaged 3 million pounds of chickpeas and two warehouses for close to $400,000 in damage.

On Tuesday, city officials posted a $10,000 reward sign at Blue Mountain Seed Inc, 203 E. Oak St., the site of the Sept. 9 fire that sent flames more than 50 feet into the air, scorched the backsides of several houses, forced the evacuation of a number of residents and left most of the neighborhood and portions of the city covered in a blanket of smoke, as mountains of dried garbanzos smoldered from Friday night to Sunday night.

The fire was believed to have started in the smaller of the two storage warehouses, in a building with no electricity where dry chickpeas were stored, owner Gary Ferrel said.

Earlier, Ferrel had noted that chickpeas do hot have spontaneous combustion problems, as do some other crops.

The Sunday after the fire, federal investigators were brought in because of reports by neighbors that an explosion was heard minutes before the fire broke out, interim fire chief Bob Yancey said.

Investigators found no cause for the explosion or fire, and now believe the explosion happened after the fire started and was spreading, Yancey said.

For almost two days the fire refused to go out, which meant the 1,500 tons of smoldering chickpeas eventually had to be broken up, doused and hauled away to Sudbury Landfill by city crews, who put in 128 hours of extra work, officials said.

"All day and all night Sunday they hauled the chickpeas away ... It was out of the ordinary, trying to get somebody on a Sunday. But our city crews were great, and now we are trying to recoup some of the costs," Yancey said, noting the city is looking into make a an insurance claim.

According to USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council CEO Tim McGreevy, the 1,500 tons of chickpeas are worth approximately $20,000 to a shipping processor.

Ferrel said the two wrecked buildings are worth $375,000 total, and that the damaged chickpeas represent almost 20 percent of what he processes annually.

The fire did not damage the facility's processors, and workers continued to process chickpeas the week after the fire, Ferrel said.

Anyone with information on the arson is asked to call 800-55-ARSON or Walla Walla County emergency dispatch at 527-1960.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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